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Friday, February 26, 2021

Ghulam Nabi Azad replacement: Many names of heavyweights in Cong’s balancing game

Will the party factor in regional balance and appoint a leader from the Hindi heartland, where the party was routed in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi |
Updated: February 10, 2021 8:43:10 am
Ghulam Nabi Azad replacement: Many names of heavyweights in Cong’s balancing gameCongress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad at his residence after the farewell in Rajya Sabha on Tuesday. (Express photo by Prem Nath Pandey)

WHEN Sonia Gandhi picks Ghulam Nabi Azad’s successor for Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, will the internal dynamics in the Congress play out? Will the party factor in regional balance and appoint a leader from the Hindi heartland, where the party was routed in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? Will it opt for continuity and experience? Or will it give weightage to social justice politics?

These are the considerations on the Congress table as Azad retires from the Upper House on February 15. And among its choices are veterans Mallikarjun Kharge, who was the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha from 2014 to 2019; Anand Sharma, currently the deputy leader of the party in the Rajya Sabha; former Union minister P Chidambaram; and ex-Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh. All of them fit the bill in one way or the other.

Ghulam Nabi Azad replacement: Many names of heavyweights in Cong’s balancing game Ghulam Nabi Azad retires from Rajya Sabha on February 15. (Express photo by Prem Nath Pandey)

Party leaders said an official announcement on Azad’s replacement is likely to come from Sonia only after February 15.

Azad was among the 23 senior leaders who had written to Sonia last year seeking widespread reforms in the party, with Sharma one of the signatories. However, while the tremors set off by the letter are yet to settle, the Congress president has appointed many of the writers to key party panels, indicating she doesn’t hold ill-will against them.

One of the considerations that might go into the choice is the need for regional balance. The Congress is led in the Lok Sabha by West Bengal MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, with his deputy Gaurav Gogoi not from a Hindi-speaking state either. The Congress has only five MPs from the Hindi heartland in the Lower House. Should it seek a person from the region to fill the gap in the Upper House, both Sharma and Digvijaya will do.

Sharma, a former Union cabinet minister, will also signal continuity since he has been actively involved in coordination with other Opposition parties for six years as the Congress’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha. A two-time former CM, Digvijaya is a political heavyweight who like Sharma first became an MP in 1984.

In terms of seniority as well as oratory skills, Chidambaram, an eight-term MP, has an equal claim. If the party decides to look beyond regional balance, apart from Chidambaram, Kharge too will be in the reckoning. Many believe Kharge was brought to the Rajya Sabha last year keeping in mind Azad’s retirement. A prominent Dalit face of the party, he had led the depleted Congress side in the Lok Sabha aggressively. Plus, he speaks fluent Hindi.

Many veterans in the party also believe the party should have ensured Azad’s return to the Rajya Sabha. Among the letter-writers, or the G23, there is a tinge of resentment on this count. “K C Venugopal, who hails from Kerala, was brought to the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan last year. And K T S Tulsi, who was Robert Vadra’s lawyer, was given the nomination from Chhattisgarh. I still don’t understand why the party did not think about Azad,” one leader said.

Azad first became a Rajya Sabha member in 1990 from Maharashtra; followed by his election in 1996 from home state Jammu and Kashmir. Azad represented the erstwhile state from 1996 to 2006, but for the brief period he was the CM of J&K. In 2009, Azad again became the Rajya Sabha MP from J&K, and has been its member since. In 2014, he was chosen as the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha by the party.

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